The Hoosegow Abyss-Part 1:The Complete Fool’s Guide to Doing Life in Prison

Author’s Preface: I met thousands of prisoners during my career as a prison warden but few got my attention more than Eddie G. who was serving three life sentences. This is the first of fifteen non-fiction essays to be posted on Medium that taken together describe Eddie G’s prison experience.

Saginaw County Jail

My friends, few as they are, call me Eddie G. I have plans to walk the warm tan sandy beaches of Lake Michigan (they still are warm and tan and sandy, aren’t they?), and eating a double cheeseburger from McDonalds, with salty fries and chocolate shake. Or maybe I’ll live in the country in a tiny shack. I like gardening. I could grow a vegetable garden and hunt rabbit, though I suspect they won’t let me have a gun. The hitch is I’m serving three life sentences with the possibility of parole.

When arrested I had just turned seventeen, right after my parents bought a new house. My mother took money she saved for new furniture and hired a lawyer know as a “fixer” for thirteen hundred dollars. A day before my arraignment the lawyer demanded ten thousand more, and when my parents balked, he quite saying, “I hope he is ready to do life.” Good Catholics, my parents went to their church for help and the priest gave them the name of another lawyer. Strapped for cash, Dad worked a deal with the new lawyer to pay him thirty-five hundred dollars, to be made in hundred-dollar weekly payments. Dad had a good job at General Motors, but took another job as a tailor in order to raise the cash, working from 6:00 am to 2:00pm tailoring, then doing an eight-hour shift at GM.

At the time of my arrest, I was on juvenile probation for theft, and according to the law I was supposed to have a hearing on whether or not I would be tried as a juvenile or an adult. Two days before my arraignment the sheriff shows up with a paper signed by my probation agent saying I had been released from juvenile probation for good behavior prior to my arrest, which was news to me.

I pled guilty because I wanted to avoid the humiliation of a trial and having to face my family in open court, and because my lawyer, who I didn’t see until my arraignment, said I would likely get paroled after ten years. The usual time served for my crime is fourteen years. My parents complained to their priest that the lawyer didn’t do anything except tell me to plead guilty, and the priest said the guy was a recovering alcoholic, fresh out of rehab and was just getting back on his feet.

I spent ten months in the Saginaw County jail, a long time to wait to be sent to Jackson Prison’s Reception Center, aka Quarantine.

Violent Spaces

At first, I thought being in a cell without other guys was a good deal because I needn’t contend with anybody’s bullshit. Then the beatings started. I was beaten by jail staff daily…you could set your watch on when the beatings would start. I hadn’t caused any trouble in jail, and couldn’t understand why I brought such attention until one of the staff said, “Guess you picked the wrong victim, asshole. Next time stay away from the sheriff’s family, not that there’ll be a next time.”

My lawyer somehow got me transferred to the Midland County jail for a couple of months, but then I was taken back to the Saginaw jail and placed in a large cell with a lot of very big Black guys who were multiple offenders with hard time under their belts. I surmised the sheriff’s objective was for my cellmates to beat and rape me, since I was a small guy inexperienced with doing time, and certainly not living in conditions of zero personal space.

Fortunately for me, there was a guy I knew from my neighborhood, a huge dude who remembered me as a kid. Through him I gained acceptance. More importantly, these big convicts kept the staff from beating me. Staff weren’t anxious to take on a ward full of experienced convicts just to beat a small Hispanic, sheriff’s relative or no sheriff’s relative.

Though the jail staff hoped I would be abused in this crowd, it never happened. A week or two after entering the wing, a Marine on-leave was arrested and placed in our wing. He was nineteen and came in talking jive about beating up a few guys, bragging about how Marine tough he was. That night my cellmates had him sucking cock for anyone that wanted it done, and even worse they didn’t beat him to accomplish their goal. They merely had to threaten him. The next morning, the Marine made bond and was released. Semper Fi.

First Visit

My parents first visit after my arrest was at the Saginaw County jail. My jailors had been careful to only beat my torso so I didn’t have visible bruises and welts to alarm my parents, though I discovered there was little chance of that since my parents could barely see me.

My cell was one of several off a corridor that was secured by a thick metal door containing a small window. I stood on one side of the door and my parents stood on the other side. We hollered to hear each other because of the door’s thickness and the constant jailhouse racket; midway into yelling something to my parents, the noise would abruptly stop and my voice, magnified by the hard concrete surfaces, could be heard by all the others prisoners. Sharing anything personal wasn’t possible. It was like trying to conduct a conversation in a noisy auditorium.

My parents took turns peering through the window: Dad gave me that blank stare you get from someone whose heart’s been ripped out; Mom’s eyes welled up tears that creased her cheeks. There was not much to say.

My cellmates shared their prison war stories and made it clear when I got to Jackson I’d have to fight or be engaged to some guy named Turk. One comment remained in my memory, “They are going to be on you like shit on a wool blanket.” I took it to heart, and despite being a little guy, I started picking fights with new guys on the wing. I lost some and won some. When I was losing, my cellmates made sure I didn’t get beat up bad, demanding the other guy stop when they saw I was losing. Nevertheless, I was quick to fight anyone, big or small. I even started saying “You have to be bigger than me to make it worth my while.”

Jacktown Quarantine

My first sight of Jackson scared the shit out of me. Jackson (aka State Prison of Southern Michigan, aka SPSM, aka Jacktown) is massive, with sixteen cellblocks holding over five thousand convicts, and twelve watch towers, all enclosed by a thirty-three-foot-high wall; the largest walled prison in the world.

Jackson Prison

Quarantine is the section of Jackson where all new arrivals to the Michigan prison system are held until your case is evaluated to determine where you will be sent next.

On entering prison quarantine, there were a lot of guys from Saginaw County jail who knew me, though they weren’t aware of the amount of time I had received. They learned I was doing three life sentences, and knew my proclivity for fighting. Instant respect.

Quarantine was two huge cellblocks (aka “rocks”): Seven Block for those prisoners under 21 years old, and Eight Block for those 22 and older. Each block held roughly 500 prisoners. The blocks consisted of five galleries: base, first, second, third, and forth gallery: fifty cells on each side. The cells faced each other, with fifty feet separating each side from the other. The gallery railing was draped with chain link fencing from the first gallery on up to the ceiling of the fourth gallery. The fencing was there for a number of reasons: safety for the officers walking on base so they wouldn’t be hit with items thrown off upper galleries; to stop those with the bright idea they couldn’t do the time the judge imposed and wanted to jump to their death; but more importantly, to make sure while fighting you weren’t thrown off the gallery.

Jackson Cell Block

The rock sounded and smelled like a dog kennel. Everyone was loud, and everyone wanted to be heard over the next guy. A discordant symphony that occurred 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. It was a mad house and this was where I was expected to spend the rest of my life? I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared; I was, but I was working very hard not to show it. I vowed I would get out of here, or die trying.

The officer’s desk was in the front of first gallery, and below it on base was a large group of tables used for card and board games. We first entered the block during recreation time, so there were a bunch of guys at the tables. Everyone stopped to look at the seven new arrivals.

I quickly became aware of what my life sentence meant when a block sergeant greeted us, clipboard in hand, and announced, “WHICH ONE OF YOU IS IT THAT HAS THESE THREE LIFE SENTENCES?” I stepped forward and said that would be me. He wasn’t tall, but he was built like a brick shithouse with multi-colored tattooed arms, a deeply erythematic face, and bad breath. In a gentle soothing tone he said, “Did you see a lot of cars on your way up, did you see a lot of trees?” I answered yes that was true, I had seen a lot. He then said, “Good, because from behind these 40-foot walls where you’re going to spend the rest of your miserable fucking life, you won’t see any of them again.” I’d only been recently sentenced, so the reality hadn’t set in. His next comment baffled me and I wondered was he stupid or testing me? I made the choice to think he was stupid when he asked, “Now how are you going to do your time, the easy way, or the hard way?” I knew lots of really tough people were watching, and my response would dog me the rest of my prison existence, so I replied, “After what you just told me, I’ll do this any fucking way I feel like doing it.” His face darkened, and he firmly told me he didn’t like my comment, and that I was starting down the wrong road. I said, “I don’t give a damn what you like and don’t like.”

I learned what he meant by doing it the hard way: he placed me on the fourth gallery amidst cat calls, whistles, and offers of intimacy. The fourth gallery where all the heat and stink from four tiers of cells rose forming a permanent atmosphere.

My 10x6 cell was lavishly furnished with a 3’ x 6’ metal frame bed and a mattress that looked like it came from a leper colony, a seatless toilet bolted to the wall, a tiny sink rust stained by dripping water, bars on both the front and back of the cell and a mirror attached to a steel bar about ten inches long, two inches wide, and three-sixteenths thick, bearing multiple coats of paint that made them looked padded. I sat a few minutes and remembered the advice of my county jail protectors: “You better be ready to fight.”

I stood and took hold of the mirror and found the bar it was attached to was lose. I pried the bar off the wall and re-attached the mirror with a torn piece of bed sheet. I was ready to address the cat calls as soon as they let me out of my cell.

Hours later, all the cell doors were opened at once since they were attached to one locking system. My cell door opened whether I wanted out or not. We were being released for yard time. I ran into a few guys I had met in county jail, including one big guy I had fought. We greeted each other like old friends and he said in a loud voice, “THIS MEXICAN WAS CRAZY IN COUNTY, AND NOW HE WILL BE EVEN WORSE, THEY GAVE HIM THREE LIFE SENTENCES, AVOID HIM.” It wasn’t that they were scared of me, they just didn’t want the trouble. Word spread quickly. I was labeled the “crazy one” by prisoners, and ‘dangerous’ by staff. The prisoners who witnessed my performance with the sergeant stayed clear.

It was in a unique situation. I had a sense of power and control that I hadn’t experienced since my crime spree. The handful of young Mexican guys in quarantine started hanging around with me as a deterrent to trouble. Soon they came to me with issues they wanted resolved. Issues like another prisoner had taken something from them, or they were being pressed for sex or drugs by some convict. I addressed these issues by making it clear to the parties in question, if you don’t want problems correct the matter or I will correct it for you. To my amazement these implied threats worked on most of the convicts. Of course, I had to step up in a few situations, against guys who felt they were equally as dangerous. Kinda like gunfights in the old west; there’s always someone who thinks their tougher than you. After being accused of multiple assaults I landed in the hole (segregation, solitary) a few times: five days the first time, seven days the next, and seven more again. My reputation grew with each trip to the hole.

I stayed longer in Quarantine then normal. Usually within three weeks you would be moved on to the next facility, after completing a battery of tests, physical and psychological examinations, assault and escape risk assessments, the usual bullshit. But I couldn’t do that from the hole so for a few months they placed me on a permanent “top lock”, which meant I wasn’t in the hole but I wasn’t allowed out of my cell except to go for testing and on visits. I inquired why, since I had done nothing recently to warrant this punishment. I was informed that in order to be transferred you couldn’t be in the hole, which is where I was every time I was scheduled to transfer. So, to make sure that didn’t happen again, I was placed on top lock until the receiving prison had room for me.

Hi Mom and Dad

The narrow, elongated Quarantine vising room was equipped with long wood tables redolent of Medieval banquets. Seats were wood benches on which prisoners sat on one side of the table, and visitors on the other. Everyone’s hands had to be on the table, not underneath where contraband could be passed. Contact was allowed to the extent you could visibly hold your visitor’s hand across the table. In most other prisons, convicts were allowed four visits each month but Quarantine permitted only two.

My parents were pat searched and entered the visiting room with facial expressions like you see when someone’s been hit in the back of their head with a board. Unsure of what to do, they sat where directed by the on-duty guard, huddling close fearing the strange and unknown. Once they were seated, I was allowed in on the opposite side of the table accommodating a dozen other prisoners and their visitors. This was the first of my parents’ approximately 2,000 Friday visits, my anticipation of each visit growing with time’s passage until their deaths.

Everyone was new to prison visiting and the room’s atmosphere was a fabric of tension embroidered with threads of anticipation. Nobody wanted to be there, but were pleased to see their friends and loved ones.

Dad asked how I was doing but otherwise said little. Mom asked when I thought they would release me. I explained that I did what they said I did and that I’d be here a long time, maybe getting out after ten years like my lawyer claimed. I asked if my younger brother and older sister were going to visit and Dad said they were too embarrassed and humiliated and angry. He said my youngest sister did want to visit and they would soon bring her. I told them to wait until I got out of Quarantine, that I’d been told other prison visiting rooms were more laid-back, more relaxed.

After a couple of months on top lock, I was transferred to Michigan Reformatory (MR) known in the 70’s and 80’s as “gladiator school”) where many of the guys I knew from Jackson quarantine now resided. I learned at Jackson just how good the advice was that the guys in county jail gave me: You are either at the table eating, or you’re the meal.

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